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  • A Russian Prince in Seventeenth-Century Rural England? October 29, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Woolley is a rural parish in what was once Huntingdonshire and what is now Cambridgeshire. Its has provided one very worthwhile episode for the annals of bizarre history and that concerns its seventeenth-century rector Mikipher Alphery. Poor old Alphery was kicked out in 1643 during the Civil War when Cromwell and his devils were getting the upper hand: he had the misfortune to be in the most Cromwellian part of the country. Then in 1660 Alphery was restored, so everything was alright then: an everyday story of farming folk. Only there is one problem and that is the Rector’s name. Churchill once complained that his best general, Slim, didn’t have a general-sounding name. What would Churchill have made of Mikipher Alphery as a rector, not exactly deep England is it? In fact, Mikipher Alphery is a Russian name. The details are slight to say the least, but it appears he arrived in Britain from Russia in the late sixteenth century, at a time when asylum seekers was not a viable concept: and even had it been so more Englanders would have ended up in Russia than vice versa. In any case here is an early nineteenth-century source. Should we trust it? We learn, first, that there were three brothers two of which died of small pox.

    The surviving brother entered into holy orders; and in 1618, obtained the rectory of Wooley [sic] in Huntingtonshire, a living of no great value, being rated under 10 l. in the king’s books. Here he did his duty with great alacrity; and although he was twice invited back to his native country by some who would have ventured their utmost to have set him on the throne of his ancestors, he chose rather to remain with his flock in the humble situation of a parish priest.

    For yes, Alphery, was a scion of the royal house? Sounds a bit too much like a fairy tale? Perhaps, but the Russian family that sent him must have had some money.

    Our source goes on to tell us that some Roundheads threw him out of the church and his living and he and his family had to live in a tent for a week. He ended his life in Hammersmith London. But was he really a Russian prince? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Also any other Russians or Brits for that matter in the wrong part of the world in the seventeenth or for that matter any other century. Here’s hoping.

    1 Nov 2013: Mike Dash has done, in a few minutes, a far better job on this than I have in an hour: ‘Especially fascinating article today, enough to inspire a brief burst of research when I am actually supposed to be researching slave traders on Easter Island in the 1860s… the story actually seems well attested. I presume you have done some basic searching, which reveals some additional family info on Ancestry.com by a 10th generation granddaughter, including a supposed portrait, and quite a long and apparently well sourced extract from WHB Saunders’s Legends and Traditions of Huntingdonshire of 1888. There is a DNB entry on Alpherry by SL Sadler, and five nicely researched pages on him in the Slavonic and East European Studies Review for 1987. Another detailed account comes from Anthony Glenn Cross’s Cambridge – Some Russian Connections – a lecture delivered on his assuming the post of Professor of Slavonic Studies in 1987, which might therefore be thought likely reliable. According to Cross, Alphery actually attended St John’s College, Cambridge and later migrated to Clare College (BA 1611/12). Cross says that he arrived in England in 1601 not as a refugee but as a youth (a gentleman, not a prince; there is no mention of imperial blood till 1714) sent over by Boris Godunov. His real name was apparently Mikifor Olfer’evich Grigor’ev. He came with three other youths, whose fates are unknown. No contemporary reference, apparently, to their being brothers, or to the others dying of smallpox. They dispersed, on to Ireland and the other two to India as servants of the East India Company. Alphery converted to the CofE and became a fierce opponent of Orthodoxy, and this led him to resist several efforts to bring him home – one of them an attempted kidnapping. It’s not quite clear why the Muscovites made such strenuous efforts, over the course of a decade, to have him returned to his homeland. There are still some monuments to the family – the graves of his wife and a daughter can still be seen at Woolley. There is some mention in a couple of the sources of the person who took him in when he first arrived in England, and found him his church living in Huntingdonshire: one John Bedell, who while sometimes described as Russian was probably a merchant of the Muscovy Company. This is a reminder that trade links did exist between England and Russia in this period – mostly a product of the fur trade. Ivan the Terrible [Ivan the IV] famously received an elaborate state carriage (still surviving) as a gift from Elizabeth I, and infamously sought her hand in marriage. How different all our histories might have been had they wed.’ Wade points out that there is Wikipedia page on this gentleman – hadn’t expected that… Then Umbriel writes making again the connection with Ivan the Terrible, who knows? Your discussion of Mikipher Alphery yesterday brought to mind the much later story of Prince Gallitzin, former Russian noble turned Catholic missionary priest on the early American frontier. Gallitzin, though, at least had ties to Catholicism through his mother, and it’s harder to envision what might have brought a Russian into the Anglican clergy. You were a little dismissive of the idea of Alphery being a political refugee, and weren’t specific on the date of his immigration, but the late 16th century could well encompass the tail-end of Ivan the Terrible’s reign, which could surely have provided ample justification for anyone to seek greener pastures. Perhaps Alphery was an infant at the time of his arrival, and was committed to the clergy as part of his parents’ seeking acceptance in their new home? *** KMH is also thinking about Ivan IV: The late sixteenth century in Russia was the time of Ivan the Terrible – whatever positive qualities he may have possessed, he was particularly known for his harsh treatment of the nobility, known as the boyars, in building his empire as the first “Tsar of all the Russias.” After his death in 1698 Russia entered into a time of trouble and confusion until the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in 1613. If Alphery was of boyar heritage (his exact rank isn’t known) it may explain why he immigrated to England – to escape the  persecution by Ivan the Terrible and his supporters. Any claims to the throne of Russia would need to be backed by unquestioned heredity and an army, both  of which would be particularly controversial at the  time, especially for the foreign powers involved with Russia during the period, (Poland, Lithuania, Tatars, etc.). So, even if he were a prince of a particular area, he was only one of several or many among the Russian peoples, and had very little or no chance of upending the Romanov drive to power. There is a story for every émigré, and today for every refugee, political or otherwise.’ Thanks Ken, Mike, Wade and Umbriel!